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Jason Quigley: Almaty only the beginning of the journey

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BY CHRIS MCNULTY
c.mcnulty@donegalnews.com

THAT the over-riding emotion at the conclusion was a deep and hurtful disappointment said a lot about the man.

Jason Quigley was practically inconsolable in the moments after his world middleweight final defeat to Zhanibek Alimkhanuly.

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Against the home fighter, in front of 5,000 boisterous fans in the Baluan Sholak Palace of Culture and Sports in Almaty, Quigley came up just short.

As he stood on the second step on the podium, he had to bite the lip and the smile given to photographers was a forced one.

Jason Quigley, you see, isn’t used to doing second place.

Back he went to the dressing room in the bowels of the arena. Upon the wooden bench he sat, with head in a towel soaked in sweat and tears.

He told the comforting hand around his neck: ‘I just couldn’t do any more’.

Words failed Conor Quigley.

The big Ballybofey man had just watched his son become the first Irish male to go better than bronze at a World Championship.

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“This young fella is standing with a World silver medal and he is feeling like he has let people down,” a drained, emotional but utterly proud Conor Quigley told the Donegal News from Almaty.

“What more can you ask? He has stepped out of that ring with a World silver medal That is the cream of the crop. You don’t get any better than the boys Jason has been going in with.

“The journey has been unbelievable. There are men here who are getting on podiums and they’re World Champions, Olympic Champions.

“This man, Jason, has gone to that level and he has done something that has never been achieved by an Irish boxer, which is incredible.

“When you take a wee step back, look and realise what it is that he has achieved is unbelievable. It has just been a fantastic year.

“He will be a wee bit happier after a wee while.”

As father and coach, Conor Quigley has devoted his own life and times to the pursuit of his son’s dreams.

Those dreams haven’t appeared overnight.

Jason Quigley was always a cut above his peers.

The Friday night was a windswept one on Stranorlar’s Millbrae. It was late October 2006 and Quigley was doing what he does on the canvas of the Finn Valley ABC at the Finn Valley Centre.

Readying himself to head to Newport in Wales as part of a local team, Quigley was set to face Paul Jones, who happened to be a three-times Welsh champion, no less.

“I want to get to the top…I want to be the best boxer in my weight,” the fifteen-year old Jason Quigley said then.

He stood nine minutes from fulfilling that dream in Kazakhstan, but to return from Almaty with a silver medal should be put into some context.

This is the best return ever by a male Irish boxer at the World Championships and his silvered sensation has shot among the elite of elite in terms of sporting success for Donegal.

This is big business.

Conor Quigley said: “He is absolutely gutted, but when he gets a chance to reflect on what he has done and realises that not another Irish boxer has achieved what he has, he can think about that a bit clearer.

“During the tournament, you are always thinking about the next fight.

“The rise in the last 18 months is just…to be able to train an athlete to that level is something that you dream of.

“I get dizzy thinking about it and you have to nip yourself and say: ‘This is Jason Quigley from The Beeches’. It’s just brilliant.”

The Quigleys came the hard way.

Conor Quigley from Ard McCool and now of The Beeches can vividly remember the days when he held the pads for the young Jason to jab.

How the innocence of youth has become the guile and graft of one of the best middleweights on the planet is a startling story of battling against the odds; a tale of utter determination; a story of sacrifice.

From those days in the kitchen of the family’s flat in Donegal town, Conor Quigley remembers something about the young Jason.

He was, what they might call around the Finn Valley, ‘a thran caddy’.

“If I was running four miles in the morning, Jason would want to do five,” Conor remembered.

“It was always about doing that wee bit extra, looking to get an edge.”

He first stepped between the ropes when he was seven years old. He defeated Noel McBride from Loughanure who was punching for St Mary’s in Annagry. McBride would go on to win a national title himself. Quigley had his paws hoisted aloft that night and the picture soon became a familiar one.

The first three national championships he entered he returned from as the victor.

“We weren’t thinking at that stage that he would get here,” said Conor Quigley as he assessed the finer engravings upon the world silver medal.

“When he started to win and win regularly at national level you sort of begin to think: ‘Jesus, maybe he can go to the next level’. It was the same the whole way up and it is just a step at the time. This isn’t a bad step to have taken.”

Right now, it is the what ifs that are the jarring parts.

While Quigley was slugging it out with the Russian Artem Chebotarve in Friday’s semi-final, Alimkhanuly had the day off after his opponent, England’s Anthony Fowler (cousin of a certain Robbie Fowler), had to pull out of their semi because of a hand injury.

From Wednesday to Saturday, the Kazakh was free, while Quigley had nine of the toughest minutes of his life to endue on Friday.

It would take a toll on the Ballybofey man.

The tank had been well and truly emptied.

“The Kazakh got a wee bit of luck with the walkover,” Conor said.

“He came in fresh and had three days to recover, whereas Jason had 24 hours.

“It mightn’t have made a difference, but I would rather have been in the Kazakh’s position.

“Plus, he was fighting on his home turf and had thousands cheering him on. He is an outstanding boxer and we will take nothing away from him.

“Friday’s was such a massive fight for Jason, to get to a world final. He is walking away a history maker.

“That fight he nailed and it took a lot out of him. People were expecting the same performance to come again and it was just a wee bit too much.”

In every athlete’s career there is the point in time where the business becomes a serious one.

For Conor Quigley, the lightbulb moment came in Szczecin, Poland at the European Youth Championships in August 2009.

Jason didn’t just win the middleweight title there; he did so with such a style and vigour that saw him named as the Boxer of the Tournament.

All the way through his five fights he dropped just four points – three of those in the one bout.

“I said to myself then: ‘I have a diamond on my hand here’,” Conor said.

“It was the way he won them, hardly conceding a point. I knew I had a gem.”

And so they got to work. They set the bar, cleared the bar and raised the bar.

That meant sacrifice, but they had the right environment. Mother Muriel has been a solid support to the pair and also a bedrock of the club. In sisters, Jade and Hollie, Jason has his two biggest supporters. The family unit is a close-knit one.

Jason doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke. Socialising is a rarity rather than a regular.

He missed his school prom as he was in the middle of hard training.

At the time, he said: “There’s boys coming up saying ‘are you going out tonight’ but I’ll be heading to bed for 10 o’clock.

“At the start it was hard, but it wasn’t that hard because I hadn’t done that much.

“Of course you’d love to go out nights, but to be where I want to be I can’t be out running around discos. Of course, it’s great to go out a couple of nights, but that is one of the sacrifices that I have to make.”

There was also the small matter of school and he happened to be heading into his Leaving Cert year.

He’ll be forever indebted to Maeve Scully and the teachers at St Columba’s College, Stranorlar. He attended school on Mondays only with the rest of his week spent training in Dublin.

Not only did they email him his work, such was the impression he made he was made Headboy.

He said: ““It was as if I was family to them in so many ways, they helped me out so much. I was made Headboy and to get it really showed the respect the teachers had for me. The respect I would have for them is unreal too with the way they have helped me. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Other principals wouldn’t have taken me in. They know how dedicated I was to the sport and helped me.”

When the Quigleys decided to enter the Irish Senior Championships in 2010, they came up against Darren O’Neill in the final and lost.

It was no shame for the fledgling fighter in his first senior shot.

Soon after, he was called to box for Ireland against Italy in an international in Belfast, only to have his hopes of getting back to winning ways dashed when the Italians walked out of the event in controversial fashion.

They had contemplated taking a break.

Boxer said no.

Quigley said: “I wanted to box. I hate knowing my last fight is a defeat and wanted to change that.”

Soon after, he was in the green trunks again – in his first senior international, where he blitzed a Greek opponent, Dimitris Varvaresos, 7-0 in the Prime Ministry Tournament in Turkey.

It is only in 2013 that he has become a senior international boxer in Championships – and what a mark he’s made.

Just like Michael Carruth and Katie Taylor, Jason is trained by his dad.

And Conor Quigley doesn’t rest on laurels, either.

For his first week in Kazakhstan, he wasn’t site seeing. Rather he was doing his three-star coaching badge, mixing with the Russian, Cuban and Kazakh coaches. Pushing his own ideas on in pursuit of that dream.

He said: “With other boxers, I have two hours with them in the gym, but it is 22 hours before I see them again.

“I know exactly what Jason is doing. It’s like a clock the way the two of us work.”

From its formative days in 2004, the Finn Valley ABC has grown into something of a production line with the likes of Austeja Auciute and Michael Gallagher making powerful waves, too.

Conor said: “You are looking at every young person that comes through the door. as soon as they throw a punch you’re looking at the way the punch is thrown just incase you might have another champion on the hands.

“You’ll have boxers who come in and will be novice champions, Irish champions, European champions. In their own right they all deserve the same respect and it doesn’t matter the level.”

The ace in the pack is Jason Quigley.

In a grade that counts the likes of Andy Lee, the late Darren Sutherland and Darren O’Neill as recent champions, Quigley knows that the middleweight division is unforgiving – and the plans will now turn to defending that Irish belt in early 2014.

He came agonisingly close to it in Kazakhstan, but he’s unlikely to rest until he conquers the mountain of his dreams.

He said: “It has been a dream of mine from day one, not only mine but my family know everything that I’ve put into this sport. It’s everything they’ve put into it as well.

“This is my job, this is my life. It is everything I do.”

Gerry Hussey is a Performance Psychologist who was in Almaty with the Irish team. He tweeted after Saturday’s final: “Scars will heal,dreams repair,battles will be lost and wars will be won and if you worry we are finished, I promise we have just begun!!”

When Jason Quigley said in 2006 that he wanted to be the best boxer in his weight, he intended to walk the walk, not talk the talk.

Almaty may well prove to have been just the prologue to his story.

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